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'1812' doc extends history beyond bullet points

STEPHON JOHNSON Amsterdam News Staff | 9/28/2011, 6:16 p.m.
'1812' doc extends history beyond bullet points

With the War of 1812's 200th anniversary around the corner, this piece of American history has been reduced to two things in today's culture: the ongoing "When was the War of 1812?" joke that students have told each other for generations and the story of Fort McHenry, which inspired the penning of the "Star-Spangled Banner."

But, like everything else in American history, there's much more nuance to the story, and folks are often left out of the historical mix to further a certain group's agenda. The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) documentary "The War of 1812" looks to shine a light on the often- and hardly told anecdotes of the war-a war that many have said was forgotten.

Produced by WNED in Buffalo, N.Y., "The War of 1812" (which premieres on PBS Oct. 10 at 9 p.m.) shows the viewer once again why your history classes and history textbooks are not the most reliable sources of facts. When there's an agenda to sell, important things are usually left out.

From 1812 to 1815, Americans fought against the British, Canadian colonists and Native American nations. For Canada, the war is still remembered as their fight for freedom and democracy. For Native Americans, the war signaled the loss of their ability to govern themselves on their own land. For the Americans and British? The war is either hardly remembered or the historical accounts are filled with much myth-making and legend creation.

While the burning of Washington, D.C., the battle of New Orleans and the legend of the national anthem's construction at the Battle of Baltimore at Fort McHenry are relatively well-known stories told in history classes, "1812" shows that the American tendency to only admit blunders in wars where we weren't the clear victor (i.e., Vietnam) have clouded what the country sees when it looks in the mirror.

Filled with blunders, gaffes and a cacophony of mistakes, the real story of "The War of 1812" leaves the viewer feeling lucky that America got away with such a display of incompetence, as when Major General Isaac Brock of Great Britain took over a fort in Detroit without a fight because he found out about the United States' declaration of war before many American soldiers did.

Or when the largest army to ever invade America wasn't the redcoats of the motherland but the Canadian Army, led by Governor-General George Prevost. Stretching from the Caribbean to South America and from Nova Scotia to Ireland, "1812" shows just how vast of a war this truly was-it could be considered the real First World War.

"1812" also shows how the smallest, tiniest, most seemingly insignificant losses or victories can mean so much. It shows how a young nation struggled to organize itself. It shows a native people taking one last shot at freedom to live where they pleased as they pleased on their own land. It shows Black Americans in a country that didn't value them looking for an ally-anyone-who would support their struggle.

The map of America could have been redrawn differently had the breaks not gone the United States' way in the war. Failures were forgotten immediately after they happened, the truth was bent to shape the agenda of the victor (or at least the agenda of the ones in power) and legends were made based on shaky foundations.

As it turns out, everything but the map redrawing is also happening in today's American conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan and other nations. In other words, at the end of documentary, the viewer might be left wondering if America has changed at all.